Children need play for positive development. It is how their little bodies release stress, exercise, make sense of things, expand their minds, and nurture a natural love of learning.
While reading an article by psychotherapist Katie Hurley called, “Stressed Out In America: 5 Reasons To Let Your Kids Play,” I realized parents really need to be the protectors of their child’s playtime. I also discovered through interviewing parents that lovely, well-intentioned ones are pushing their children into numerous extracurricular activities believing it is best for them, when it may actually be creating issues.
People have their whole lives to learn instruments, sports, and dance; starting as early as possible is not essential.
Motivation can die when children are pushed beyond what their interest level can hold. Children often become discouraged when they feel overwhelmed, tired or nagged. When a parent needs to constantly push a child to engage in their piano or Spanish lessons, that child’s natural interest can flat line.
Free play gives children the space they need to make their own choices, and to feel powerful and interested in the world. It gives kids time to work through their own frustration when they are challenged.
When I ask parents why they are filling their kid’s schedules, the most common response I get is, “My parents didn’t sign me up for things. I don’t want my kids to lose out on opportunities like I did.” It isn’t unusual for us to swing the pendulum to the other side when we feel we were lacking as a child. What is even more powerful is when a parent feels he or she wasn’t “seen” as a child and mistakenly tries to avoid the same pitfall by overdoing it with their kids.
Another thing robbing our children of their much-needed playtime is homework. Research still fails to show that homework is beneficial in elementary school, yet parents and educators are not responding fast enough to this knowledge. Unhelpful and unnecessary homework is still being assigned, which is a cause for stress for families. I offer suggestions to what helpful homework is and how you can talk to your teacher about your child’s homework load here.
"When you think about it, it's kind of weird that, after spending all day in school, kids are asked to do more academic assignments when they get home. What's weirder about that is we don't think it's weird."—Alfie Kohn
You can watch a great, short video by Kohn on this topic here.
What can parents do to protect their child’s playtime?
If your child wants to do swimming, piano, hockey and gymnastics, try to schedule them out over the year so perhaps swimming can happen in spring/ fall, hockey in winter, and the other two get split in the year so only two activities are happening during one period of time.
For example, if your child really wants to play basketball but already has her time booked, take her to your local school basketball hoop, encouraging pick-up play.
As per the American Pediatric Association’s official recommendations, children under two should have NO screen time (mobile devices, electronic toys with screens, computers, TV, video games). Regardless of any company’s claim, screens are not “educational” for toddlers/ preschoolers and the real education lies in the real world, as Raffi says. Introducing screens too early can kill the desire for free play. It is hard to compete with a flashing, bright screen. Children need to get used to playing without these objects first.
Take your child to new places like your closest forest, riverbank, sand pile, and backyard to just see what happens.
Resist the urge to orchestrate what the child is playing with and when. Parents do not need to “entertain” their children — the natural urge to explore will kick in when a child is given the space to be curious.
Do what you can to make the play space for your child safe and then back away. Take young ones to a play area that is age appropriate and go sit on the bench for a rest! Certainly do keep your eye on your child, but children need the space to push their own safety boundary — they will learn what they feel comfortable doing. If your child looks stuck and screeches for help, try talking him or her down first. Children gain a sense of capability when they can get themselves out of a sticky situation. If parents continually are a foot away to scoop in and save the day, children can miss the important learning that happens from making mistakes. They may also come to depend on you instead of their own capabilities.
I’d love to hear what you do to protect your child’s playtime. You can post that in the comments below or over on my Facebook page.
“Play is often talked about as if it were relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” —Fred Rogers